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14.1.7 Adoption Plans and Contact Arrangements (Including The Letterbox Scheme)

SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER

This chapter deals with the issue of contact (both direct and indirect) between the child and his or her birth family from the earliest stage of identifying the option to placing a child for adoption as a permanence plan. It also describes support available to the birth family.

RELEVANT LEGISLATION AND GUIDANCE

  • Adoption and Children Act 2002, Sections 1, 26 and 27;
  • Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005, Regulations 45(2) and 46;
  • Adoption and Children Act 2002 Guidance (2011), Chapters 7;
  • Adoption National Minimum Standards (2011) Standard 8.


Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Legal Context
  3. Policy
  4. Practice Principles
  5. Legal Considerations
  6. Practice Guidance

    Appendix A: Letterbox Scheme


1. Introduction

1.1 This policy and procedure extends the policy and practice guidance in Contact Service Procedure to contact arrangements for children in adoption placements and post adoption order.
1.2 When an adoption plan is decided for a child at a Statutory Review the existing contact arrangements will need to be reviewed, as these may have been designed to support reunification of the child to the birth family.
1.3

One of the key principles of the Children Act 1989 is the presumption that there should be contact between the child and their birth family while the child is in the care of the Local Authority. The aim is to work in partnership with the family towards reunification where possible. However, the purpose of an adoptive placement is fundamentally different as the intention is that the child should become part of another family.

There is no general presumption for or against contact for children in adoptive families. Rather, the child’s needs for contact with birth relatives and other significant people must be assessed. Plans for contact after adoption should be based on the child’s needs. Standard 8 of the Adoption NMS (2011) states contact with birth parents, siblings, other members of the birth family and significant others is arranged and maintained when it is beneficial to the child.

1.4 This policy and guidance aims to assist workers in the task of planning contact arrangements which are manageable, likely to be adhered to and therefore sustainable after the adoption order. It is written within the context of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and statutory Adoption Guidance. A useful summary of contact requirements can be found in Chapter 7 to the Guidance.


2. Legal Context 

2.1

The guiding principle in planning for contact in adoption is the child’s welfare. Section 1(2) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 states:

“The paramount consideration of the Court or adoption agency must be the child’s welfare, throughout his life”.

2.2

The adoption welfare checklist found at Section 1(4) of the Act identifies some considerations relevant to welfare. Those which are particularly likely to need consideration when planning for contact in adoption are:

Section 1(4)(a)

The child’s ascertainable wishes and feelings regarding the decision (considered in the light of the child’s age and understanding).

Section 1(4)(b)

The child’s particular needs.

Section 1(4)(d)

The child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics which the Court or agency considers relevant.

Section 1(4)(3)

Any harm (within the meaning of the Children Act 1989) which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering.

Section 1(4)(f)(i)

The relationship which the child has with relatives, and with any other person in relation to whom the Court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant, including the likelihood of any such relationship continuing, and the value to the child of its doing so.

2.3

In coming to a decision on the contact arrangements that should apply, the agency must also take into account:

  • The wishes and feelings of the parent or guardian of the child, including those of a father without parental responsibility where the agency considers this appropriate;
  • The wishes and feelings of the child;
  • Any advice given by the adoption panel when considering whether a child should be placed for adoption, and when considering a specific placement;
  • The views of prospective adopters when considering a placement.

The relative weight given to such views and advice will need to be carefully balanced and will depend to some extent on the stage of the adoption process. The determining factor must be the welfare of the child.

2.4

It is a requirement that contact should be considered rigorously at every stage of the adoption process (see 5 below), and courts will check that this has been done appropriately. It is therefore essential that workers give careful, detailed consideration to contact issues from the outset. In addition workers should:

  • Keep detailed records which evidence the frequency, quality and impact of contact on the child at every stage;
  • Be able to give clear reasons and justification to support proposals for contact or place restrictions on contact;
  • Ensure that contact proposals are specific and detailed;
  • Ensure that they are recorded in detail within the appropriate Framework episodes.


3. Policy

In assessing, planning and monitoring contact arrangements for children with an adoption plan, Nottinghamshire Social Care Services believes in and will promote an ‘open’ approach. Openness is the recognition that adoption is not a secret. It acknowledges the child’s right to know their history according to their age and understanding. We will:

  • Ensure that adoptive families and the agency are ‘open’ to sharing a child’s adopted status and life history with the child, whilst respecting the child’s confidentiality and safety;
  • Achieve this by working in an ‘open’ manner with all parties at all stages i.e. full involvement of all significant people in the planning for adoption, full exchange of information at the time of placement, and as required, following adoption order;
  • Ensure that the needs, wishes and feelings of the child are paramount;
  • Provide support to the child if and when difficult information needs to be shared, taking into account their safety and welfare;
  • Openness is particularly important in the managing the risks of unplanned and unmediated contact (for example via social networking).


4. Practice Principles

4.1 The child’s needs, wishes and feelings, and their welfare and safety are the most important concerns when considering contact with birth parents, wider birth family members and other people who are significant to the child.
4.2 The type of contact (or decision for no contact) arranged for the child should best meet their needs, taking account of their on-going welfare and safety. This will involve assessment of what form of contact (e.g. face-to-face, letterbox scheme, telephone etc.) is most appropriate for each individual child. (see Section 6, Practice Guidance 6.2.1 and 6.2.4)
4.3 The wishes and feelings of birth parents/families will be taken into account in the decision making about contact and counselling will be provided.
4.4 The decision about contact arrangements which will form part of the child’s adoption plan will be made at a Statutory Review (and reviewed at subsequent Statutory Reviews). When the adoption panel considers whether the child should be placed for adoption and when a match is presented to panel, it will also offer advice to the agency on the contact which is proposed.
4.5 If post-order contact is recommended, the Child’s Permanence Report will include details of those people with whom the adopters and the child will have contact, when and where the contact will take place, and what kind of contact is planned e.g. direct, letterbox, telephone etc. The reasons for a decision for no contact should be clearly outlined and recorded.
4.6 The preparation and assessment process will encourage prospective adopters to develop an understanding of the importance of enabling a child to maintain links with their past. Prospective adopters will be expected to be able to work with the contact plan, with support if necessary, and to facilitate links which are agreed to be in the child’s best interests.
4.7 Prospective adopters will be made fully aware of and consulted about proposals for contact. These will be discussed at the Adoption Placement Meeting, recorded in the Adoption Placement Report for panel, together with the views of the prospective adopters, and finalised in the Adoption Placement Plan.
4.8 An assessment of the level of support needed by all parties involved in contact arrangements will be undertaken by the respective workers, recognising that maintaining links for children is likely to require support prior to and after an adoption order is made. If a high level of support is anticipated, the child’s social worker must discuss this with the Support After Adoption Team as early as possible and before making any firm commitments to any party.
4.9 Siblings with an adoption plan should usually be placed together, but if this is not possible or in their best interests, a careful assessment of the contact that will enable them to maintain appropriate links should be made. This must combine an assessment of each child’s individual needs for contact with the needs of the sibling group as a whole. It will also require consideration of additional resources to support and sustain contact arrangements in the long term.
4.10 Maintaining links between adopted children and their non-adopted siblings will be considered as part of the adoption plan, taking into account any assessed risks to the adopted child’s safety and on-going welfare. (See 6.2.5).
4.11 The adoption plan for disabled and black children will include contact arrangements which meet any different and individual needs. (See 6.2.6).
4.12 If a child is placed trans-racially, specialist provision will be made available to the family to ensure that links are maintained with significant birth family members or kinship networks in their communities, so that these children can grow up feeling connected to their roots and knowing about their origins. Every effort should be made to ensure, wherever possible within identified timescales, children’s ethnicity and cultural heritage are reflected in their adoptive family.
4.13 Adoptive parents (and children where appropriate) are informed and prepared to manage the possibility of unplanned or unmediated contact, such as via social networking. All parties to the adoption are offered support should this occur. This support would usually be provided by the Support After Adoption team.
4.14 Birth relatives are also helped to understand the harm such unauthorised contact can have and are supported/counselled as above should this occur.


5. Legal Considerations 

Contact Service Procedure deals with contact arrangements for Looked After Children and should be read in conjunction with this chapter.

5.1 Preparing the Care Plan

5.1.1

A key element of the care plan for adoption will be contact arrangements. When considering these, the child’s worker must be fully aware of the implications of their proposals, not just in the context of Care Proceedings, but for each subsequent stage of the adoption process. The worker must therefore take the long term view, considering the following:

Before authority to place is obtained

What contact arrangements are appropriate up to gaining a Placement Order or formal parental consent (which constitutes authority to place the child for adoption)?

Between authority to place and placement

What arrangements should apply from the time authority to place has been granted until the actual placement of the child with prospective adopters? (See 5.2 below).

After placement

What arrangements should apply whilst the child is placed with the prospective adopters and until the Adoption Order is made? (See 5.2 below).

After the adoption order is made

What arrangements should apply after the child has been legally adopted?

5.1.2

If this long term approach is not followed, there is a danger that the agency may be challenged on the basis of apparent inconsistency between the contact arrangements proposed in the care plan and those made later.

When making contact proposals for the stages following the making of a Care Order, it is advisable to avoid giving specific commitments. Any statement about contact should be qualified in terms that allow for proposals to be developed as further work is undertaken with the child and birth parents, and ultimately with the prospective adopters.

5.1.3 The Support After Adoption Team in general and the Letterbox Coordinator in particular is a valuable source of information and advice about the implications of contact arrangements and the impact of these over time. The child’s social worker and Team Manager are strongly advised to draw on this experience in considering their proposals for contact at each stage of the adoption process, as outlined in 5.1.1 above.

5.2 The Significance of “Contact in Placement” Proposals

5.2.1 Once authority to place the child for adoption has been gained, the rules about contact change fundamentally. Any Children Act order relating to contact is extinguished, and so are the general presumptions about allowing and promoting contact.
5.2.2 Statutory Adoption Guidance makes it clear that during the placement interval, there is no presumption for or against contact, (see Chapter 7, paragraphs 8 to 17).
5.2.3 Whilst acknowledging that each child’s needs for contact should be individually considered and that the child’s welfare should at all times be the paramount consideration, contact during placement needs to be assessed against the underlying objective of securing the child’s adoption. The question should be, “Will this contact arrangement help or hinder the achievement of adoption for the child?”
5.2.4

The significance of “contact in placement” proposals are as follows:

  1. They provide the basis upon which others involved (e.g. birth parents and their solicitors) will consider their position and decide whether to apply for a Section 26 “contact in placement” order;
  2. Subject to any Section 26 order, they are the basis upon which the child’s actual placement with prospective adopters will take place, i.e. the prospective adopters will be bound by their terms during the placement period;
  3. They may be interpreted as establishing a precedent for the contact arrangements that will apply post-order (see 5.3.2).
5.2.5 It therefore follows that “contact in placement” proposals which have not been properly considered may inhibit the child’s placement prospects by deterring prospective adopters who feel unable to cope with the contact expectations. They may also lead to a Child Arrangements Order application which by its nature will create uncertainty for the child and for any prospective adopters.

5.3 Prior to the Making of an Adoption Order

5.3.1 Reviews of the adoptive placement will include discussion of existing contact arrangements and look ahead to the arrangements that should apply once the Adoption Order is made - see Adoption Reviews Procedure. It is essential that there is detailed discussion with the prospective adopters, to ensure that they are comfortable with the post-adoption contact arrangements which are proposed. Details of any contact proposed should be clearly recorded within each review.
5.3.2 Legal advice should be sought if it becomes apparent that there may be disagreement about the contact that is being proposed once the Adoption Order has been made.

5.4 When the Adoption Order is Made

When an Adoption Order is made previous orders and agreements in relation to contact are extinguished. This includes any Section 26 order. In theory, the adopters are fully in control of post-adoption contact arrangements, subject only to the Court’s very restricted power to impose a Section 8 (Children Act 1989) order for contact. In practice, Section 8 orders are very rarely imposed but there are provisions within the Adoption and Children Act which make it clear that the possibility of such an order remains.

Section 46(6) of the Act states:

“Before making an adoption order, the Court must consider whether there should be arrangements for allowing any person contact with the child; and for that purpose the Court must consider any existing or proposed arrangements and obtain the views of the parties to the proceedings”.


6. Practice Guidance

6.1 The Purposes of Contact

Contact arrangements must always be for the benefit of the child, whilst acknowledging the adults’ wishes and feelings and meeting these as far as is consistent with promoting the child’s welfare. Face to face contact, or other kinds of contact with birth parents and/or other relatives and significant others, may serve a number of different functions for the child which change over time, by:

  • Providing an opportunity for an adopted child or young person to gain more knowledge and understanding about her or his personal and family history and cultural background which will strengthen the child’s identity;
  • Enabling a child to develop a realistic understanding of the circumstances leading to separation (this may be particularly relevant in the case of parents who have learning difficulties or who experience mental distress);
  • Enabling a child to grieve his/her loss;
  • Enabling a child to move on and develop an attachment to new carers with the blessing of her or his birth parents/relatives;
  • Reassuring a child that the birth parents or other relatives continue to care about the child, which may enhance the child’s self-esteem;
  • Promoting stability in a new or existing placement by providing continuity and enabling connections to be maintained;
  • Reassuring a child about the well-being of birth relatives, especially siblings whether they are living with birth relatives or in an alternative family;

Contact arrangements are likely to change over time in response to the child’s changing needs and wishes. The adopters, child, and birth parents will need to understand how to seek advice and support around these changes, via the Support After Adoption Team.

6.2 Deciding the Contact Arrangements in an Adoption Plan

6.2.1

Assessing the Child’s Need for Contact

It is the responsibility of the child’s worker to assess the child’s need for contact and to make proposals which will meet this need. Regulation 13(1)(c)(iii) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 includes a requirement that:

 “The agency is - so far as is reasonably practical - to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings regarding contact with his parent or guardian or other relative or with any other person the agency considers relevant”.

Workers need to ascertain what the purpose of contact will be for the child (what the child needs from contact and what the child wants - in terms of who they have contact with, when and where).

There may be discrepancies between what the child needs and wants, and what they can actually cope with. It is the social worker’s task to assess these issues. All the adults concerned will have an opinion about what the child can cope with, and again it is the social worker’s task to make sure that these opinions are backed up by evidence, and an analysis of the balance of risks and gains underpinning the recommended contact plan.

In the course of their assessment, workers should make full use of opportunities to consult with the Support After Adoption Team and the Letterbox coordinator who have substantial experience of all aspects of contact and can provide valuable practical advice.

Contact should be discussed, agreed, recorded in detail and reviewed at statutory reviews.

6.2.2

Obtaining the Wishes and Feelings of other Parties

Regulation 14 (1)(c)(iii) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 includes a requirement that:

 “The agency is - so far as is reasonably practical - to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the parent or guardian of the child, and of any other person the agency considers relevant, regarding contact with the child if the child is authorised to be placed for adoption or the child is adopted”.

Where the father of the child does not have parental responsibility for the child and his identity and whereabouts are known to the agency - and the agency considers it appropriate - it is also required to take into account his feelings and wishes (Reg. 46.3)

Contact has a unique meaning, significance and purpose for each person involved in the adoption process and therefore each person’s perspective on the subject should be explored.

Counselling should clarify:

  • That the contact obligations under the 1989 Act will be replaced by new arrangements provided for by the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 if the agency is given authority to place the child for adoption;
  • How contact will change in real, practical terms;
  • That they have a right to apply for a Child Arrangements Order under section 26(2) and (3) of the Act.

6.2.3

Factors to Consider in Planning Contact

A number of factors need to be assessed and taken into account:

  • What has been learnt from the previous contact arrangements (if any) about the nature, quality and importance of the relationships the child has with various family members? How have the child and parents coped with contact? What support was given to the parent and child to enable them to cope with contact? What preparatory work was done with the parent to explain what is/is not acceptable during contact? What preparation was done with the child?
  • Is there evidence that those relationships are of such significance that they should be sustained and protected to meet the child’s needs? The child’s age and level of understanding will be important factors in assessing this issue;
  • Whether there have been or might be harmful factors for the child in sustaining these relationships e.g. with an abusing parent/sibling. Has sufficient action been taken to minimise these risks, e.g. by supervised contact, therapeutic work etc. Are birth relatives able to acknowledge their responsibility for past abuse?
  • Are there specific issues to be considered for sustaining relationships with siblings?
  • What does the child want in terms of contact?  What can they cope with? What impact will this have for their attachments?
  • What do the birth parents, birth family, and other significant people want in terms of contact, and why is this appropriate? This includes foster carers, with whom the child has developed strong attachments. What are they offering and is this likely to be sustainable? Will this reinforce or support the child’s placement or adoption, and enhance the child’s welfare?
  • Extended birth family should be carefully explored as potential contacts for the child and/or background information for the child about their kinship network;
  • At the same time it is generally not helpful either to the child or their adoptive parents to have a large number of Letterbox exchanges with individual birth relatives. It may be better to limit the formal Letterbox exchange to a particular birth relative with an understanding that this person will share the adopters’ news with other family members and will include some news about them in their letter to the adoptive family;
  • For black children who are placed transracially, what special arrangements might need to be made for maintaining the child’s contact with their community?
  • What kind of contact will best meet the child’s needs (e.g. Letterbox, telephone, face-to-face) and why?
  • What kind of on-going support is likely to be required by the parents, child, (and adopters once the child is matched) in order to sustain the contact arrangements. If face-to-face contact will need to be supervised, this must be discussed with Support After Adoption in detail and at the earliest opportunity to establish how viable this will be, particularly in the long term.

6.2.4

Assessment of Risk

A clear evidence-based assessment of risk in relation to contact should be made. All contact involves an element of risk (as does no contact at all) but we should seek to minimise this and the adopters may play a key part in monitoring this. Assessment of risk should include:

  • Risk of physical harm and from whom;
  • Risk of emotional harm and from whom;
  • Risk of contact plan not being sustained, and the impact on the child if this occurs;
  • Risk of abduction and from whom;
  • Risk of sexual abuse and from whom;
  • Risk of any inclusion of photographs or other identifying information in Letterbox exchanges. (Any photos sent to one birth relative will almost inevitably be shared with others and adopters should be aware of this. The posting of photos on social networking sites by birth family (not necessarily out of a wish to cause difficulties) can cause problems and adopters should be aware of this too).

The severity and likelihood of each risk can be differentiated:

  • Risks that are so grave that contact should not be allowed;
  • Risks that indicate a high level of supervision and control (this is unlikely to be possible post-Adoption Order);
  • Risks that indicate some less intensive supervision (this may be possible post-Adoption Order);
  • Slight risks which will not affect the plan significantly, but where safeguards need to be considered in the plan.

All these factors need to be considered for all types of contact, and the risk assessments should be stored on the child’s Framework records under Documents and clearly titled. This is important in case contact arrangements change and risk assessments need to be revisited post adoption order.

6.2.5

Sibling Contact

Research and practice feedback suggests that separation from siblings is a particularly damaging part of some past adoption placements for the children concerned. Therefore, our policy is to place siblings together unless there are specific reasons why this is not in their individual interests. If such reasons exist, then consideration must be given to some form of contact (unless this is indistinguishable from a wider family contact that is seen as potentially harmful).

Face-to-face contact between siblings is preferable, but circumstances and risk factors may mean that indirect Letterbox contact is the only viable option. This also depends on a responsible adult managing the exchange for children under 18 years.

This principle is also applicable to children who have non-adopted siblings living within their birth family or in Local Authority Care. (See Adoption Planning for Sibling Groups Procedure).

6.2.6

Contact for Ethnic Minority Children

Every effort should be made to ensure that a child’s ethnicity and cultural heritage are reflected in their adoptive family. Where children cannot be placed with parents who reflect their ethnic origin, within an identified time period, the reasons for the decision to seek trans-racial placement must be clearly recorded and considered by the Adoption Panel. For these children, particularly those placed trans-racially with carers who have no family or community links which reflect the child’s ethnic and cultural background, contact with individuals from their ethnic community should be part of the plan. This contact can help promote a child’s positive sense of their identity, continuity with their community and positive attitudes to their ethnic and cultural heritage.

This will also apply for those children placed trans-racially in Inter-Country Adoptions. (See Working with Black Children and Families - to follow).

6.3 Choosing from the Different Kinds of Contact

Contact after adoption can take a variety of forms, from face-to-face contact to contact by letter, telephone and, very rarely, DVD exchanges. It should not be assumed that direct contact is always the ‘best’ form of contact, but rather this is one option to be considered in an assessment of what best meets a particular child’s needs in a particular situation. Neither should it be assumed that Letterbox contact is necessarily an easier or less challenging option.

The criteria for successful contact after adoption include:

  • The adopters recognise and understand the importance of contact for the child;
  • The adopters feel in control of the arrangements;
  • The birth family members accept the fact of the adoption and will not undermine the placement;
  • The child is comfortable with the contact arrangements;
  • All parties agree with the plan and can work co-operatively in accordance with the child’s changing needs.

Face to face contact is therefore not indicated in situations where a birth parent or relative:

  • Presents a risk* (see below) to the child;
  • Disagrees with the plan for permanence;
  • Does not accept the parental role of the adopter;
  • Has proved unreliable in their commitment and emotional ability to sustain contact* (see below);
  • Does not have a significant attachment to the child, and vice versa; or
  • The child does not wish for face to face contact;
  • The child emotionally cannot cope with the conflict of family loyalties.

Other forms of contact which are not face-to-face should be considered according to the particular circumstances of each child.

This includes the ‘Letterbox Scheme’ administered by the Support After Adoption Team (See Appendix A: Letterbox Scheme). This enables the on-going exchange of information between members of the birth family and adoptive family, where this is seen as in the child’s best interests, and where it needs to be done in a confidential and non-identifiable way.

*Our assessments and decisions on contact in adoption should take account of evidence from work undertaken to minimise risks, and to help parents be more reliable. (See 6.2.3 and 6.2.4).

6.4 Ensuring All Parties are Informed of Contact Arrangements and Changes

The child, birth parents/significant others, and adopters should all be informed of the final contact arrangements and any changes to the plan.

Regulation 46(4) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 requires the agency to notify the following people of the contact arrangements:

  • The child, if of sufficient age and understanding;
  • The parent or guardian, including a father without parental responsibility where the agency considers this appropriate;
  • Any person who was having contact under the 1989 Act which ceased to apply by virtue of section 26(1) of the Act;
  • Any other person the agency considers relevant.

If changes to the plan are proposed, all relevant parties should be informed of the changes and given the opportunity to express their views, which must be taken into account when deciding the contact arrangements while the child is placed for adoption with the prospective adopters.

The Adoption Support Plan should record the level of support which each party may require to sustain the contact plan. In cases where no on-going support is considered necessary at the time, all parties should be informed that they can contact the Support After Adoption Team in writing if they require advice or support in the future.

Following every adoption review and prior to lodging adoption papers the plan for contact should be recorded and a copy sent to all parties, including the child if of an appropriate age and understanding. The Contact Plan forms an integral part of the child’s Framework file and should be updated as and when required.

Contact arrangements should be practised before an adoption order is made to ensure they work. These should be supported by the prospective adopters’ social worker and the child’s social worker who takes a lead role.

6.5 Recording and Preserving Records

The Department’s File Management and Recording policy should be followed. In addition, the Department also has a responsibility to:

  • Preserve full records confidentially and securely for 100 years and to add to them any correspondence from birth or adoptive families received after an Adoption Order. Original documents from birth relatives should be preserved where possible and kept on a paper file lodged with the Adoption Records manager. All parties should be informed that this correspondence will be kept on file (it may be particularly significant in later Birth Records Counselling or if an adopter re-approaches the Agency). Departmental access to records after the Adoption Order is authorised by the Adoption Service Manager (where children are under 18) or Records Co-ordinator (where the request is in respect of an adult);
  • Seek agreement from adopters to inform the Department in the event of the death of the child, so that this information can be shared with the birth parents if they so wish;
  • Attempt to contact adopters if information becomes available from whatever source, which is viewed as highly significant to the child’s future welfare (e.g. medical information, deaths etc.). All parties should be encouraged to contact the agency with such information and routinely notify the Adoption Records Coordinator of changes of address etc. The Adoption Records Coordinator will consult with the Support After Adoption Team if any action is necessary beyond filing of information;
  • Advise all parties about the Adoption Contact Register and its use (see Intermediary Services Procedure and Access to Birth Information (Post Commencement Adoptions) Procedure.

6.6 The Role of the Adoption Panel

6.6.1

The Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 prescribe the adoption panel’s role in relation to contact as follows:

Reg. 18 (3)(a)

Where the adoption panel makes a recommendation to the adoption agency that the child should be placed for adoption, it must consider and may at the same time give advice to the agency about:

  1. The arrangements which the agency proposes to make for allowing any person contact with the child.

Reg. 32 (4)

Where the adoption panel makes a recommendation to the adoption agency that the child should be placed for adoption with the particular prospective adopter, the panel may at the same time give advice to the agency about any of the matters set out in paragraph (3).

This includes (3)(b) - the arrangements which the agency proposes to make for allowing any person contact with the child.

The agency must take into account any advice given by the adoption panel in coming to a decision on the contact arrangements (Reg. 18.3).

6.6.2

When considering whether a child should be placed for adoption, panel will offer advice on contact on the basis of the information provided in the Child’s Permanence Report. The report should include:

  • The wishes and feelings of the child regarding contact with his or her parent or guardian or other relative or with any other person the agency considers relevant;
  • The wishes and feelings of the child’s parent or guardian, and any other person the agency considers relevant, regarding contact with the child if the agency is authorised to place the child for adoption or if the child is adopted;
  • The agency’s views about the child’s need for contact with his or her parent or guardian or other relative or with any other person the agency considers relevant, and the arrangements the agency proposes to make for allowing any person contact with the child. (This should include what support will be required for these arrangements).
6.6.3 Contact proposals included as part of the Child’s Permanence Report submitted to Adoption Panel need to be consistent with those outlined in the Care Plan. Any discrepancy between the contents of the Care Plan and the proposals in the Child’s Permanence Report should be carefully explained and justified, particularly if the proposals in the Child’s Permanence Report are less generous to contact recipients than those in the Care Plan.
6.6.4 If contact proposals change during the period between the panel recommendation that the child should be placed for adoption and identifying prospective adopters, these should be presented to the adoption panel to enable panel to further advise the agency.
6.6.5

When considering whether a child should be placed for adoption with specific prospective adopters, panel will offer advice on contact on the basis of the information provided in the Child’s Permanence Report and in the Adoption Placement Report.

This report should include:

  • The arrangements the agency proposes to make for allowing any person contact with the child;
  • The prospective adopters’ views of these proposals.
6.6.6 Once a child has been placed with prospective adopters, it is not necessary for changes in contact proposals to return to panel. However, it will be essential that a detailed discussion takes place between the workers for the child and the prospective adopters, and with the prospective adopters themselves and agreement reached as to the proposals. In such situations workers may find it helpful to consult with relevant members of the Support After Adoption Team.

6.7 Resource Issues

6.7.1 It is acknowledged that there are likely to be costs incurred by the adoptive parent in ensuring that contact arrangements are maintained; particularly costs of travel for direct contact with siblings, for example. Financial assistance under the agency’s Adoption Financial Support scheme may be available to support contact arrangements. Please see Adoption Financial Support Procedure for further details.
6.7.2 It may be possible to meet costs for birth relatives from a budget held by Support After Adoption. Where such costs are predicted, this must be discussed with Support After Adoption before any commitment is made to birth relatives.

Bibliography

“Safe Contact - Children in Permanent Placements and contact with their birth relatives” - Catherine Macaskill (Russell House Publishing 2002).

“After Adoption: Direct Contact and Relationships” - Carole Smith and Janette Logan (Routledge 2004).

Staying Connected: Managing contact arrangements in adoption, Hedi Argent, BAAF 2002.

Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, theory and practice, Elsbeth Neil & David Howe (eds), BAAF 2004.

Managing Contact, Henrietta Bond, BAAF 2007.

Placing Siblings, Hedi Argent, BAAF 2008.

“Social Networking and Contact” - Eileen Fursland (BAAF 2010).

“Facing up to Facebook” - Eileen Fursland (BAAF 2010).


Appendix A: Letterbox Scheme

1. Principles and Boundaries of the Scheme

1.1 The confidentiality of the Letterbox Scheme is vital. The system must be administered by staff working within an adoption setting. Records must be stored securely according to the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 and Minimum Adoption Standards.
1.2 Letterbox contact is complex and often challenging for adoptive and birth families alike. Letterbox arrangements for Nottinghamshire children must be designed to operate post-order via the Letterbox scheme administered by Support After Adoption (unless by agreement a voluntary or other adoption agency offers an equivalent system instead). No informal arrangements should be operated by the child’s or the adopters’ social worker once the order has been made.
1.3 All arrangements must accord with the Department’s policy on contact set out in this chapter.
1.4

All Letterbox arrangements are the responsibility of the adults involved.

In the case of an adopted child the responsible adult will be the adoptive parent/s. In the case of a birth sibling under the age of 18 who is not adopted a named adult will need to take responsibility for the Letterbox on their behalf. This may be the child’s birth parent or other adult carer. If the child is looked after, consideration will need to be given to whether the foster carer, residential worker or social worker will be responsible. Information is never sent direct to children.

1.5

The responsible adults must agree if child-to-child (or child-to-adult/adult-to-child) communication is to be included in the exchange from the outset and this must be confirmed by the child’s social worker and detailed in the Adoption Placement Plan. Any such arrangement should also be recorded in the child’s Contact Plan. This applies, for example, to the exchange of birthday and Christmas cards.

It will be up to the adopters to determine the time and manner in which information, cards and any other communications received via the Letterbox are passed on to the child. Flexibility is essential as children’s needs and capacity in relation to contact will change according to their age and understanding.

1.6 Children’s involvement in the Letterbox scheme: the involvement of children in the exchange may be planned from the outset (e.g. separated siblings), or it may occur as the exchange develops over time. As with any parenting issue, the assumption must be that there is an increasing involvement of the child as his or her age and understanding grows. Adopters should not enter into Letterbox arrangements with a view to maintaining secrecy until the child is 18, and the child’s views on the contact (its existence and its conduct) must be considered as time goes on. How, and at what stage, is for the adopters to decide. There are similar issues for the birth family, especially if the Letterbox involves a parent who is bringing up another sibling.
1.7 The child’s worker and the adoption worker should prepare the relevant participants for the task of Letterbox contact. Consultation and advice for workers is available from the Letterbox worker at Support After Adoption (via e-mail at letterbox@nottscc.gov.uk, telephone and contact surgeries) and supportive counselling continues to be available to all parties to a Letterbox after the adoption order has been made.
1.8 Letterbox arrangements normally cease when the child reaches the age of 18 but there is provision within the scheme, however, for arrangements to continue into adulthood for adopted young people where appropriate. 
1.9

Where a Letterbox proposal has been made, letter contact should be established, supported and monitored well in advance of the adoption order (see 2.2 below). Exceptionally, a retrospective agreement (i.e. post-order) can be agreed by the Support After Adoption Team Manager, but only if:

  • The request comes from the adopters rather than the birth family;
  • It is considered to be in the child’s best interests;
  • Support After Adoption have checked the adoption file and there has been a clear change of circumstances from any previous decision not to promote contact;
  • The birth relative and adopters understand and agree the purpose of the Letterbox and are supported to use the exchange appropriately;
  • The circumstances are separately recorded for monitoring purposes.
1.10 Previous policy has been that there is normally only one annual exchange with an adult birth relative and practice experience suggests that this is the most appropriate frequency for most adoptive families and children. It may well be appropriate to consider more frequent exchanges between birth siblings but, again, practice experience suggests that two exchanges per year are likely to be sufficient and certainly that each side is rarely able to sustain more than three. (Urgent significant information falls outside the agreement and will be dealt with separately).
1.11 Due to the increased risks of unplanned and/or unmediated contact via social networking and the possible misuse of photographs on such media, careful consideration should be given to whether photographs are part of a Letterbox exchange. A risk assessment should be undertaken based on the known situation at the time of the adoption.

2. Setting Up A Letterbox Arrangement

2.1 Information about the Letterbox service is available for workers (including information which they can use when working with birth relatives and prospective adopters). Please see the Adoption Service Fronter staff site for further details.
2.2

It is essential that there is clarity about the content, method and timescales of the agreement and that all parties are aware of these. On very rare occasions it may be possible to use audio or video as well as written communications but these methods need careful consideration with regard to both resources and confidentiality so early consultation with the Letterbox coordinator is essential. Such arrangements should not be proposed without consultation with the Letterbox coordinator.

NB: It may not be helpful to either the adopters or the child if birthdays or Christmas are chosen for the exchange of information as these can be emotionally charged times. It is not possible for the Letterbox staff to guarantee that Letterbox exchanges received during December will be processed and delivered by 25th December.

Note also that the Letterbox scheme cannot handle the exchange of gifts, vouchers or money and that, if photos are to be part of the exchange, participants will be asked to limit these to a maximum of four per child or sibling group.

2.3 The Letterbox scheme does not become operational until after the adoption order. During the period between placement and order the indirect contact should be tested at least once as this is an important part of the preparation of all parties. It also allows for modification of the final arrangements if needed. The child’s worker and the adoption worker are responsible for facilitating, monitoring and supporting all pre-order contact arrangements but advice and consultation is available at all stages from the Letterbox Coordinator. Copies of all material exchanged between the parties between placement and order must be retained on the child’s electronic case record, taking care that the full names and address of the adoptive family is not included for reasons of confidentiality. (Original) paper documents should be retained if they are available.
2.4 Practitioners should consult the relevant sections of the PPG regarding timescales and decision-making for all contact arrangements, including how contact plans should be recorded and communicated to all parties. The Contact episode on Framework is the means by which the Letterbox staff are notified of the need to set up a Letterbox after an adoption order has been made. They will then write to the parties involved to confirm the agreed contact arrangements and to give them full information about the Letterbox scheme. The Letterbox address is a PO Box number which safeguards against departmental moves/reorganisation and prepaid envelopes are provided. It is also possible to contact the Letterbox by email and to send exchanges this way if parties to this method of communication give consent.
2.5 Each child will have a paper Letterbox file which is held and stored securely by the Letterbox staff within the Support After Adoption Team. These records will be archived with adoption records when the Letterbox ends. Adoption confidentiality requirements apply.
2.6 The Letterbox file will contain copies of all initial and on-going correspondence and will clearly record dates of receipt and if and when information is forwarded between the parties. Relevant case notes will also be included.

3. Maintaining A Letterbox Arrangement

3.1 Information about how the Letterbox staff manage the exchange of letters via the scheme is available in the staff area of Fronter or directly from the Letterbox administrator and coordinator as needed.
3.2 Copies of all letters, cards, photos etc exchanged between the adoptive and birth families will be taken for the Letterbox file to guard against postal loss or failure to pass on information to a child who may subsequently come back for adoption counselling.
3.3 Telephone and email advice and support is routinely available to all parties to a Letterbox from the coordinator and administrator. The Letterbox coordinator can offer office appointments and, in exceptional circumstances, a home visit to provide more detailed advice and support on contact arrangements.
3.4 Contact arrangements need to be flexible in order to accommodate the changing needs and wishes of the adopted child over time. It is the adoptive parents who are responsible for decisions in this regard until the child reaches 18. Letterbox arrangements are almost always the outcome of a voluntary agreement between the parties. Whilst every reasonable effort will be made to encourage and support all parties to honour their agreement, it is not possible to compel them to do so. However, adoptive parents in particular need to be aware of the possible consequences of ceasing involvement in a Letterbox.
3.5 Letterbox records are maintained in the child’s birth name using their unique Adoption Reference number and not in their adoptive name. Amongst other things, this enhances confidentiality.

4. Evaluation

4.1 The Letterbox scheme will be periodically monitored and reviewed by the Adoption Service Manager in conjunction with the Support After Adoption Team Manager and the Letterbox staff. Research may also be undertaken to evaluate the scheme. Review and research results will be communicated to participants and changes to the scheme may be made as a result.
4.2 Feedback from participants will be welcomed and taken into account in operating and developing the Letterbox scheme.

End